Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 936

The first of Guy de Maupassant’s six novels, A Woman’s Life was published in 1883, three years after the death of his teacher, Gustave Flaubert. Maupassant tried and mostly failed to please Flaubert by aspiring to the highest distinction as an artist in poetry and in the theater. With the...

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The first of Guy de Maupassant’s six novels, A Woman’s Life was published in 1883, three years after the death of his teacher, Gustave Flaubert. Maupassant tried and mostly failed to please Flaubert by aspiring to the highest distinction as an artist in poetry and in the theater. With the publication of “Madame Tellier’s Excursion” in 1881, he found a ready market for short stories that were admirably crafted but—judged by Flaubert’s exacting standards—needlessly cynical, inelegant, and often mechanically contrived. Nevertheless, their pungency, realism, and shrewd observation of character attracted many readers who had ignored Des Vers (1880; Romance in Rhyme, 1903), Maupassant’s only volume of poetry. Many of the qualities of the stories also appear in A Woman’s Life, a sustained, psychologically honest study of Jeanne de Lamare from the time she completes her idealistic education at a Rouen convent in 1819 until about 1855, when she is middle-aged, disillusioned, and worn with many sorrows.

Maupassant’s novel has frequently been compared, usually to its disadvantage, with two other novels that examine the fate of disappointed women, Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1857) and Arnold Bennett’s The Old Wives’ Tale (1908). For subtlety, richness of characterization, and harmonious prose style, Madame Bovary is assuredly a more profound work of art. Bennett’s novel, which was inspired by A Woman’s Life, is more detailed than its model and has a surer grasp of social history and of specific place and a deeper sense of the poignancy of time passing. Nevertheless, Maupassant’s short novel—half as long as Madame Bovary and less than a third the length of The Old Wives’ Tale—is remarkable in its own right. Compact, unsentimental, and stark, this work is a disturbing but affectionate study taken from human experience. The portrayal of Jeanne is thought to have been drawn, emotionally if not exactly, from Maupassant’s memories of his mother, and his description of The Poplars recalls the setting of the Chateau de Miromesnil in Normandy, where the author spent his early childhood. The book, which was Maupassant’s favorite among his novels, is memorable for its tender appreciation for the sufferings of women who are dominated by insensitive men.

Indeed, although Jeanne’s story is central to the narrative, she is not the only woman whose life is one of disillusionment and quiet despair. Her mother, the Baroness Adelaide, lives a protected yet narrow life; she dissembles her knowledge of her husband’s philandering with house servants and secretly takes revenge on the baron with her own infidelity. Rosalie, Jeanne’s foster sister, is seduced and betrayed by her brother-in-law. Aunt Lison, neglected and pathetic, voices the lonely agony of a woman who has never been attractive to men. When Julien, courting pretty Jeanne early in the novel, solicitously asks whether her “darling little feet” are cold, Lison exclaims, “No one has ever asked me a question like that . . . never . . . never.” Even when women give themselves to their lovers out of passion, Maupassant sees them as frail, unequal partners in romance. Rosalie confesses to Jeanne that she submitted to Julien’s lust, despite knowing the consequences and her delicate position in the household, because he pleased her sexually. The Countess de Fourville imprudently hazards a liaison with Julien out of a similar weakness. Paul’s mistress submits to her lover, excusing his spendthrift ways and casual neglect of her, because she is without resources of her own. While A Woman’s Life focuses on the history of Jeanne, her experiences are shown to represent those of her sex.

It is important to note that the story begins during the spring of 1819 and concludes about thirty-five years later. Hence Maupassant’s view is retrospective, looking backward to a time of relative calm and a settled, conservative society. Most of his short stories, however, concern his own time, the Third Republic, from 1870 to 1890. Reviewing the sources of his own turbulent age, Maupassant shows that the calm of Jeanne’s provincial society is illusionary, fixed in complacency rather than in real tranquillity. It is founded on hypocrisy and outworn traditions. The Abbé Picot, Jeanne’s casuistic parish priest, is more a diplomat than a religious man, who smooths over problems of moral turpitude for the sake of expediency. His successor, the Abbé Tolbiac, is a fanatic, inflexible in his doctrine of sin. In the narrow society in which she moves, Jeanne has not the freedom to change or to reconstruct her life, guided as she is by the dead hand of tradition.

In spite of her limited opportunities, Jeanne never surrenders to self-pity. Instead, she develops strength of character. Although she does not master her fate, she learns to endure its vicissitudes. She is brutally mistreated (if not, indeed, raped) on her bridal night; denied the affection and even attention of her husband; humiliated, almost maddened, by his infidelities; and finally neglected by her wastrel son Paul. However, she maintains a sense of personal dignity and courage in the face of defeat. Like Rosalie, who also suffers much and matures in worldly competence, she sustains life. At the end of the book, Jeanne accepts the infant daughter of Paul and his dead wife, probably only to repeat with this child the pattern of indulgence that began with her worthless son. Although she is life’s victim, she is willing to take further risks for the sake of advancing life. Rosalie’s final words, which express Maupassant’s stoic philosophy, allow the reader to understand the ambiguities of her choice: “You see, life is never as good or as bad as one thinks.”

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